Jack White’s increasingly baroque love of packaging means that it takes more than one review to get to grips with a solitary release. Hence “Under Great White Northern Lights”, a package commemorating The White Stripes’ 2007 tour of Canada which, in its simplest iteration, comes as a live CD and a longform documentary DVD about the ambitious jaunt.
There’s also a deluxe box set which involves various bits of vinyl, silkscreen prints, a hefty book, a DVD of an entire concert, some holy relics and Lord knows what else. I’ve spent part of this week writing a lengthy review of the movie for the next issue of Uncut. But when I’d reached the upper limits of my wordcount, it struck me that I’d barely mentioned the live CD. Hence I’m going to more or less ignore the film here, and get stuck into the CD.
Which is pretty great – no great shock to those of us who are fairly comfortable with the concept of The White Stripes as the best live band of the past decade. It starts fabulously, with “Let’s Shake Hands”, showcasing the band’s enduring reliance on some of their earliest songs when they’re playing live (“When I Hear My Name” makes it onto the tracklisting, too).
Actually, the CD starts with a skirl of bagpipes, and “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” further anchors the collection as being very much part of the Scottish-themed “Icky Thump” era. Jack White has been so busy and visible in the interim, it’s almost been possible to forget that album – and underestimate, in fact, the astonishing potency of The White Stripes, the virtuoso, dynamic play between Jack and Meg that manifests itself in various striking ways on radically different songs like “Blue Orchid”, “The Union Forever” and “We Are Going To Be Friends”.
“Under Great White Northern Lights” isn’t, however, quite perfect. Perhaps understandably, the tracklisting edges towards a greatest hits set in places; it’s questionable, for instance, whether there’s a need for both “Jolene” (immense discordant clangs and melodrama notwithstanding) and “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” in the space of 16 relatively swift tracks.
The frustration’s increased when the DVD contains obliteratingly great versions of “Death Letter” and “I Want To Be The Boy Who Warms Your Mother’s Heart”, among others. And the documentary footage, of The White Stripes playing ad hoc gigs in unlikely places, harbours tantalising clips of some gems: “Black Jack Davey”, “Catfish Blues”, “Let’s Build A Home”, “Lord, Send Me An Angel”.
These wouldn’t have necessarily fitted the flow of the album, with varying sound quality and so on. The thing is, though, another minor irritation with the album is that, while it certainly captures the kinetic belligerence of The White Stripes, it doesn’t quite do justice to the protean unpredictability of their live shows.
Obviously, it’d be a stretch to fit a full gig onto a single DVD. But with the songs harvested from various different shows, you don’t get the feel of how a White Stripes gig seems to spontaneously evolve, unravel and hurtle towards a resolution, how songs collapse into one another, how Jack seems to spew out snatches of music at random while Meg staunchly, miraculously, keeps up with him.
In other words… News just in: Live Album Not Quite As Satisfying As Actual Live Experience. That’ll be yet another noble rock tradition that The White Stripes are keeping alive, then.